I fell in love with Turkey several years ago when I went on a solo trip to Huzur Vadisi, a yoga retreat in the middle of a huge pine forests, high above the small town of Göcek on the country’s southwestern coast.
I’m not the kind of person who jumps at the opportunity of travelling to a foreign country alone. I’m neither brave nor adventurous enough. So less than a month after the Gezi Park protests and a wave of civil unrest that swept through the country, Turkey was far from the top of my travel list.
Perhaps the trip was a test of sorts, and after a few days my patience wore somewhat thin on the yoga, but I’d rarely experienced such deep and genuine hospitality, felt so welcome and appreciated, and been spoiled with such cultural and culinary delights.
Several years later, and unrelated, I married into a Turkish family. We visit Izmir, Turkey’s third biggest city, regularly. Two months after last July’s coup d’état attempt, we threw a huge engagement party there. Friends and family came from all over. A local farmer lent us his donkey for me to ride in on. I’ve rarely laughed harder in my life. People gave us more gifts than we could pack in our suitcases and I never wanted to leave.
Last Sunday, President Tayyip Erdogan declared victory in a deeply acrimonious referendum granting him sweeping powers to make decisions without parliamentary approval. It’s likely that many of the changes won’t come into effect for some time, but already (and to my non-expert eye) this looks like the most radical overhaul of the modern Turkish political system yet.
The legitimacy of the vote has been challenged by opponents of the government, sparking a fierce war of words, and on the international stage what’s happening in the country isn’t doing Turkey any favours.
Countries including Germany and the Netherlands banned Turkish officials from holding rallies ahead of the referendum, further damaging already battered relations.
After the vote, Erdogan repeated that he intends to review Turkey’s suspension of the death penalty, something that could well be a final nail in the coffin for the country’s half-century-long ambition of EU accession.
Add to the mix that Turkey is at the epicentre of a historical migrant crisis. Ten year ago we associated the country’s beaches with boozed-up Brits on package holidays. Now we associate them with rubber dinghies under cover of darkness.
It’s not easy to sell Turkey, neither as a tourist destination nor as an investment case. The currency is hitting a fresh record low every time I look and has depreciated more than 27 per cent against the dollar over the last year. Interest rates have been jacked up by hundreds of basis points this year alone. Alarm bells are certainly ringing but the country is not about to default. This is not Argentina or Ukraine or Greece.
The IMF forecasts economic growth of 2.5 per cent for the country this year and 3.3 per cent next. That’s not quite the above four per cent the government itself is predicting, but – just for context – the IMF thinks the eurozone economy will grow by 1.7 per cent in 2017 and the UK by two per cent.
And yes, an emerging economy would naturally be expected to have a faster growth rate than a developed economy or region, but not one that’s on the cusp of collapse.
The index of the 30 biggest stocks listed in Istanbul has risen more than seven per cent over the last year, partially as a result of the crashing lira, but Turkey is the EU’s fourth largest export market and the fifth largest provider of imports to the bloc.
Topically, it has a customs union with the EU that’s unlikely to go away any time soon – something that’s not the case for every country now, is it?
Turkey’s banks, which account for almost 40 per cent of that stock index, remain well-capitalised and Moody’s assigns a Ba1 credit rating to its sovereign debt. That qualifies as junk but it’s still 10 notches above what’s considered to be a default. Standard & Poor’s and Fitch have it at BB and BB+ respectively, in the same ballpark and a far cry from bankruptcy. The country can still borrow money on international markets. Investors still hold Turkish assets.
Geopolitical risk is sky high, and the future is about as clear as a room full of tightly packed Anatolian whirling dervishes, but through it all there is a case for buying into Turkey – financially or otherwise – at some point in the future.
And now perhaps more relevantly for most of us, the hoi polloi of cash-strapped, sun-seeking, holiday-starved tourists: Turkey is beautiful, largely safe in places where you would want to holiday, deeply welcoming and culturally one of the richest places in the world.
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against travel to within six miles of the border with Syria and to Diyarbakir, the city at the centre of a bloody conflict between the government and Kurdish insurgent groups, but also says that it’s “generally” safe to travel to the country.
The UK Government warns of “a high threat from terrorism” following a string of attacks in Turkey, but the same warning applies to France, Germany, Belgium, Australia, Russia and dozens of other countries. Despite the weak pound against a lofty euro, we don’t think twice about hopping on a flight to Paris or Berlin for the weekend. Or getting on the Tube in London.
We live in a world where terrorism has become commonplace, economic distress and market turmoil the norm, and world leaders profoundly and terrifyingly divisive. But we must stop reducing countries to their faults. Not the UK, not the US and certainly not Turkey.